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It seems that philosophy began from two locations, Asia and Europe, but were there any philosophers from the Middle East, America (South and North) and Africa? I mean, Asia and Europe weren't friends, yet they were able to philosophize; what happened with other areas of world?

Question:

Were there any philosophers from Africa, America or the Middle East before Socrates?

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  • America: not known. Native american societies were mainly non-written: thus, no historical records available. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 12:40
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    Regarding Africa, almost nothing is known of Ancient Egyptian philosophy. Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 12:40
  • Why @MauroALLEGRANZA, was their work burned? if philosophers in ancient Egypt existed, why didn't they write anything?
    – captindfru
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 12:43
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    The fact that you mentioned all of this @MauroALLEGRANZA, it opens up so many questions... Thank you.
    – captindfru
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 12:55
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    Given circumstantial archeological and anthropological evidence, it is almost assured that all ancient people asked philosophical questions and thought about philosophical issues (and common sense tells us that it would be extremely weird if they didn't). However, primary historical sources from thousands of years ago are very hard to come by, there is disparity across cultures in relation to what technology was available to them in order to preserve their writing, and obviously conquerors have a proclivity to try and eradicate the culture of the people they conquer. So, its a hard problem.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Aug 30, 2018 at 13:08

5 Answers 5

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First, Define Philosophy

I would argue, contra some of the answers above, that what we call philosophy is, perhaps arbitrarily, a specific historical tradition usually traced to Thales and the Pythagoreans, who probably originated the word. It requires, at a minimum, writing and geometry or some elements of axiomized math.

It isn't simply that we cannot access some earlier or worldwide "oral philosophy," it is that philosophy as we understand it could not really function in an oral culture, where an enormous amount of brain power must be devoted to remembering things via songs, rhymes, stories, sayings. There is no "Homeric Philosophy," except in some metaphorical sense.

While obviously philosophy shares much in common with religion, myth, poetry, law, technics, drama, star gazing, and general inquiry, I wouldn't say this is really sufficient. It requires a sustained, recursive reflection on topics, some record of arguments to revisit, some powers of abstraction, and some rules of valid argumentation. And it requires debate that is not simply about collective actions. It requires some sort of Agora or "marketplace of ideas," not devoted to political rhetoric or command.

There is no reason to suppose such a recorded lineage of dialectic would simply arise in any human culture. Mythical explanations appear universal, but this makes philosophy all the more anomalous. To really get going, philosophy must actively overturn myth, anthropomorphic explanations, and the authority of tradition, as Protagoras and others did, often at risk to their lives.

Now, one could quibble with any of the attributes I've tossed out here, and I'm sure one could demonstrate the existence of philosophical traditions in some other cultures. But there is a danger to stretching the definition simply for the sake of multiculturalism. That danger is apparent to anyone who has been to really bad "philosophy" discussions where every statement begins "Well, you may think that, but I think..."

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  • Does that mean you don't think it's meaningful to talk about Indian philosophy since it doesn't derive from Thales and the Pythagoreans? Even though a lot of it was rationalistic and not based on presupposing the truth of any religious traditions/revelations?
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 21:52
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    Not at all, I just don't know much about it. I didn't mean to suggest that all philosophy derives from those sources, and I have read that Indian sources and mathematics probably influenced the pre-Socratics. There are lots of gray areas and "family resemblances" but I think the Greek tradition is somewhat unique and has a recorded lineage from phonetic alphabet and logos to logic. I mainly want to avoid calling any and all human speculations "philosophy" in the same sense. Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 22:10
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Presocratics in Greece

Socrates is a false marker for the start of philosophy even in Greece. To begin, if he wrote anything, nothing has come down to us and it is possible (as tradition has it) that he wrote nothing. What little we know of Socrates' ideas and arguments has to be gleaned from Xenophon's Memorabilia of Socrates and the Platonic dialogues. Even if the early Platonic dialogues preserve elements of Socrates' thought, we don't know where Socrates ends and Plato begins.

More than that, there is a whole line of presocratic philosophers of considerable sophistication : Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Pythagoras Parmenides, Zeno, Democritus : and if they left only 'fragments', some of the fragments are pretty hefty. Large parts of the poem of Parmenides remain. (Edward Hussey, The Presocratics, 2013.)

Ancient Egypt

What reasonably counts as ancient Egyptian philosophy is by no means beyond historical reach as the following extract from Charles C. Verharen makes clear. He refers initially to :

the precepts of Ma' at. These prescriptions bear a remarkable resemblance to the commandments of the religions of the Book - give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, and the like - yet they may be 2,000 years older than the first books of the Bible (Assman, 1998). To sin against Ma' at is to bring chaos into life - before its time. Chaos is not intrinsically evil because the universe begins in a chaotic state that is revered as the protean creator of the universe, Nun. Disorder is evil only when a well-ordered state of affairs is reduced to chaos in advance of its natural cycle. In a holistic ontology, good and evil are intrinsic to all existence, not separate forms of existence. The Egyptian cosmology finds good in the midst of evil and vice versa: Seth is not only the murderer of Osiris but a force against the disintegration of the cosmos into chaos. Seth fights the forces of chaos nightly to restore the sun at dawn. The classical icon of Egyptian cosmology is the ouroboros, the figure of a snake consuming itself by eating its tail. The snake is the dread god Apophis, the embodiment of chaos. The whole universe must return to chaos in the end, but it will be reborn out of that chaos. For the ancient Egyptians, evil does not have an independent existence, like Satan in the religions of the Book. Evil is simply chaos at a time when Ma'at should rule rather than Apophis. Even Apophis is not irredeemably evil because it is natural for the cosmos to return to chaos, in its infinite cycle between Nun and Ma'at. The ancient Egyptians recognize that good and evil are inseparable. One can never triumph over the other for all eternity (Hornung, 1971/1982). (Charles C. Verharen, 'Philosophy Against Empire: An Ancient Egyptian Renaissance', Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 36, No. 6 (Jul., 2006), pp. 958-973 : 963.)

Here are clear elements of both ethics and cosmology. It is always possible to question what is philosophy and what is mythology. The linkage between ethics and cosmology, the internal relation between good and evil, the view of evil as privative rather than positive (the absence of order rather than anything existing in its own right) all suggest to me at least nascent philosophical thought. There are philosophical problems in the account Verharen outlines but they need not be probed now.

I have not dwelt on **ancient, presocratic Indian philosophy since it has been dealt with in the preceding answer. I have also not mentioned Chinese philosophy since the question did not ask about this.

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References

E. Hussey, The Presocratics (Bristol Classical Paperbacks), ISBN 10: 1853994855 / ISBN 13: 9781853994852 Published by Bristol Classical Press, 2013.

Charles C. Verharen, 'Philosophy Against Empire: An Ancient Egyptian Renaissance', Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 36, No. 6 (Jul., 2006), pp. 958-973.

J. Assman, (1998). Moses the Egyptian: The memory of Egypt in western monotheism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

E. Hornung, E. (1982). The valley of the kings: Horizon of eternity (D. Warburton, Trans.) New York: Timken. (Original work published 1971.)

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Ancient China and Ancient Greece, in particular, are notable in that they had similar traditions of elaborated, influential, systematic writings that are clearly identifiable as philosophical that appeared roughly around the same time. What philosophy that went on to develop in Europe traces directly back to the Greeks, through the Romans, and what philosophy that went on to develop in Asia traces largely back to China.

With this said, neither philosophical tradition developed in a void. Both countries had traditions of oral philosophy, folk wisdom, and religious ideology that predated their written philosophies. "Philosophy" in these forms has arguably existed in all societies all across the world. Great religious traditions and elaborated mythologies predating Socrates existed in India and Egypt, and undoubtedly influenced both Greece and China. (This includes the titanic, globally influential philosophical/religious tradition known as Buddhism, as founded by the pre-Socratic, non-European philosopher Gautama Buddha.) The philosophical traditions of Judaism are likewise ancient, and although they weren't widely known at the time of the Ancient Greeks, they began to influence the Romans after Israel was absorbed into the Roman Empire. (It's further worth noting that the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition was, at one point, almost entirely lost in Europe, and was restored only because it had been kept alive in the Middle East.)

Many people, myself among them, further believe that the traditional societies, AND the great civilizations of Africa, Australia and the Americas both had, and continue to have, stores of valuable wisdom that deserve the name of philosophy. These have been systematically undervalued for any number of reasons, including being largely maintained as part of oral culture, and otherwise not fitting the Eurocentric model of philosophy (or the mythology of European exceptionalism). A large part of why we perceive philosophy as beginning with Socrates is because that's the way people have chosen to tell the story. After all, Plato's own Timaeus refers to Egypt as a key source of Greek wisdom.

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It is historically accurate to say that the Greeks invented Philosophy within the West; however, if one examines different Greek Philosophers, one may see various external influences which helped shape their thought and worldview. Part of the reason as to why this was the case, was due to the fact that a few of the Greek Philosophers were reported to have traveled well beyond Greece...perhaps as far as India, centuries before the arrival of Alexander The Great.

  1. Egypt: Some years ago, terms, such as, "Multiculturalism" and "Political Correctness", became household names-(today, we hear of "Cancel Culture" and "Wokeness"). There was a supposed controversy which stated that the Ancient Greeks, somehow, "stole" Egyptian wisdom and masqueraded it as their own invention. What the PC fanatics did not know, or chose to ignore, was that the Ancient Greeks, Plato, in particular, wrote glowing (and near praiseworthy) accounts of Egyptian wisdom and culture. Cultures have and continue to "influence" each other and such "influencing" is NOT the same as outright theft/stealing.

  2. The East: If you look at a map of Greece, you will notice that this Ohio sized country sits at the tip of the European continent and is at the geographical crossroads of Africa and Asia. In Ancient times, Anatolia-(present-day Turkey), had sizable Greek communities which started by the Aegean and eventually-(through Alexander The Great's conquests), spread into Central Anatolia-(i.e. the regions of Cappadocia & Cilicia). In other words, the Ancient Greeks, often associated for having been one of the earliest Founders of Western Civilization, were also in frequent contact, with their Eastern neighbors for centuries. The famous Silk Road, which begins in Central China, finishes its journey in Anatolia and Constantinople/ present-day Istanbul. The Ancient Greeks had frequent commercial and diplomatic relations with their Eastern neighbors, but they had CULTURAL relations with their Eastern neighbors as well.

  3. Pythagoras: It is well known that Pythagoras spent time in Egypt-(as did Plato). Though Pythagoras was said to have traveled to the Middle East, Babylon and perhaps Northern India. His complex philosophy, which included, the transmigration of souls, a Vegan diet, the safeguarding of animals and his overall mysticism, appears to have deeply Eastern, in particular, Indo-Eastern elements. His famous "Pythagorean Theorem", was almost certainly "influenced" by the centuries old Egyptian mastery of Pyramidal Architecture and Mathematics. So while we should not dismiss Pythagoras as some type of opportunistic cultural chameleon, we should, simultaneously acknowledge that his intellectual influences went well beyond Greece proper.

  4. Plato: In his earlier years, Plato, was probably a Pythagorean and like Pythagoras before him, had embarked on similar journeys well beyond Greece. Plato, was also an admirer of Egyptian wisdom and may have traveled as far East as India in order to learn more about their Mystical traditions and philosophies.

  5. The Persian Empire and Zoroastrianism: We must remember that the Eastern Persian Empire conquered many Greek territories within Anatolia-(present-day Turkey) and attempted to conquer Greece proper-(though with no success). The Persian Empire existed BEFORE Alexander The Great and it was the Persian East that sought to conquer and perhaps acculturate, the Hellenic West. Part of the Persian imperial plan succeeded, whereby Greco-Anatolians had some Persian cultural influences that largely derived from their famous Prophetic Patriarch.....Zoroaster. The Zoroastrian religious tradition was based on metaphysical duality-(though insistently Monotheistic). The Dialectical nature of their religion, coupled with their reverence for Fire as a symbolic representation of the Light of God-(Ahura-Mazda), DEEPLY influenced Greco-Anatolia's most famous Pre Socratic Philosopher...Heraclitus of Ephesus.

While our knowledge of Heraclitus is literally, fragmented and is referenced by Aristotle-(if my memory is correct), we can see that Heraclitus' Dialectical statements, such as, "A road going up and down, is one and the same" and "War is the Father of All things", coupled with his position that Fire is the most indispensable Element for civilization, probably had some Zoroastrian and Persian cultural influences-(MINUS the Theology and ritualistic practices).

So when looking at the lives, statements and writings of Heraclitus, Plato and Pythagoras, we can see possible-(and I believe), likely Eastern influences, from India, Persia and Egypt. In other words, while Egypt and Persia were not known for having co-established or co-invented Philosophy, their religious sagacity, played an important contributory role in helping Greek Philosophy "come of age" centuries ago. India, like, China, had a philosophical heritage and legacy that evolved around the time of the Ancient Greeks. Though it was India's religious wisdom and mysticism that seemed to have had a profound impact on Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism, as well as as possibly having a similar impact on Plato and Platonism.

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One framing is the Axial Age, of Confucius, Socrates, Abraham and Buddha, was about a cultural transition from sacrifice-focused religions to ethico-philosophical framings, and this could be linked to the impact of a suite of -shared-technologies.

I would put Socrates in a key position in regard to defining philosophy, because his story, and especially his 'martyrdom for wisdom', was the lense that previous roles were focused into one by, into what was distinctly 'philosopher'. That is, not sage or mystic, but someone actively going out and questioning people, helping them to think through answers, in Socratic dialogue. I'd argue there is a crucial difference between pre- & post-socratics, due to this. And that what happened in Greece was subtly but importantly different than in India or China, for complex reasons (the Needham question implies, mainly geography). Aristotle was tutor to Alexander the Great, who's pursuit of legitimacy put huge resources behind promoting Greek scholarship, and texts.

Cities are part of it. Writing developed independently in Mesopotemia, China, and the Mayan Empire - the places where animals were domesticated, and cities became possible. Books were part of it. We have surviving work from oral traditions, I'd rate Ecclesiastes as philosophical, and the Buddhist Tripitaka. But to survive, they had to continuously serve the interests of someone wealthy enough to pay for the time of people to memorise these. Whereas a book can had through the whole 'dark' ages, and return when politics has changed. This allows far more elaborate texts, and far more continuity between spatially & temporally separated thinkers. For instance, we often have the Buddha arguing against other schools & positions, that we don't have records of. The Tripitaka exists for guiding Buddhist practice, not to record debates.

Oh, only for so short a while you have loaned us to each other, because we take form in your act of drawing us, and we take life in your painting us, and we breathe in your singing us. But only for so short a while have you loaned us to each other. Because even a drawing cut in obsidian fades, and the green feathers, the crown feathers, of the Quetzal bird lose their color, and even the sounds of the waterfall die out in the dry season. So, we too, because only for a short while have you loaned us to each other." - Aztec prayer 15thC, so from shortly before European contact as I understand it. Lots more here.

At contact, the metropolis Tenochtitlan at the centre of what is now called Mexico City, was the biggest city in the world. Because of two things, very productive agriculture (chinampas, even now one of the most productive systems, like early aquaponics), and much safer sanitation (this was from the 'red mud', comparable to the special biota of the Ganges which also facilitated unusual population density). But Tenochtitlan was only founded in the 1300s, and it can be argued Aztec infrastructure and governance were nowhere near as mature as the city's size implied.

Mayan culture had written language, and numerical tax records (relatively recently decoded). Most of what has survived is in the Songs of Dzitbalche, a record of ceremonial rituals. The Maya linked together crops that needed high & low altitudes for a complete diet, and used llamas to move things. They had sophisticated 'research stations', terraced depressions that helped mimic microclimates across their range for crop breeding. One thing we are really sure about, is they had a problem with political succession - such a crisis is why they were more-or-less paralysed when the Spanish arrived. Confucianism is an example of a philosophy really taking aim at reducing the damage of power transitions, through an ethic of filial piety.

Africa had, and has, a special problem. That we evolved there, and so did our diseases. The Tsetse-fly belt near the equator penned in hominids for around a million years. And the total burden of disease and stress factors saw our direct ancestors population stay stable at around 20,000, for at least 100,000 years - and leaving allowed rapid population growth. The climate oscillates with El Nino, driving continuous food insecurity. Abu Bakr II set off the cross the Atlantic in the 1300s, and the Malian empire was sophisticated as a result of trading nearly all the gold in the Old World across the Sahara, and we have oral history from their griot tradition. Swahili culture of East Africa was not militarily or politically united, but traded as far as China, and at least to the Indian Ocean in ancient times. We discussed the origin & drivers of distinctively African Ubuntu philosophy here. St Augustine of Hippo, probably one of the two most important Christian thinkers, was a dark-skinned North African. And the Western Caliphate made many contributions, from Morocco mainly.

Zoroastrianism and Parsis from Iran were the pioneers of (very close to) monotheism, with a long impact on Abrahamic culture, and in India where they were driven by Islam. Alexander the Great got as far as North India, showing how widely connected the region was. And Judah straight-up was in the Middle East, with the most influential theological innovations in the world (the impact of a day off a week for all at the same time, is underappreciated). Writing had to start somewhere, and it was Mesopotemia - Greece and Judah were majorly impacted by that.

You can place all the responsibility for the distinct tradition of philosophy on the Greeks. But that would be a mistake. Every book Aristotle intended for public circulation is lost, over 150; we only have his teaching & lecture notes. Early Christianity was very anti-pagan, enough to destroy many Greek texts. Luckily the Islamic Golden Era saw a flourishing of scholarship and translation in that lacuna, that brought many books back to us - later unravelled in the Islamic world, who got them back from the West even later. Ireland is underappreciated as a hub of European learning through the dark ages, reckoned to be the most literate European Christian country during most of this time.

So first, how much has been lost, like most of Aristotle? Second, mechanisms of continuity and preservation of texts, deepened dialogues, and required institutional or state support - so, institutions, or states (inc empires).

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